When UC Irvine defeated Hawaii on Saturday night to win the Big West title in Anaheim, the Anteaters earned a spot in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament for the first time in the school’s 50-year history. UCI actually competed in the Division II tournament several times before joining the larger classification in the late 1970s, but the school’s first trip to the Big Dance starts Friday in Seattle against fourth-seeded Louisville.
Also making their first trip to the Division I tournament this year are MAC champion Buffalo and North Florida, the winner of the Atlantic Sun. Those schools also have moved up to the top classification in recent years, Buffalo in 1991 and North Florida a decade ago. So nobody is going to begrudge them the little bit of time they needed to earn a spot in the field.
There are still somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 of the 350+ Division I schools that haven’t made the now 68-team bracket. It’s probably not a surprise that Grand Canyon University hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament, simply because the Antelopes only joined Division I in 2013 when they were invited to become a member of the Western Athletic Conference. Ditto for a school like Elon, which made the move from Division II in 1999 and just became a “mid-major” when it joined the Colonial Athletic Association this season.
But there are a handful of schools that have been playing basketball for quite a while that are still looking for their first trip into March Madness. Here are four who have come tantalizingly close, but haven’t gotten a spin on the dance floor.
In addition to never making it to the NCAA tournament, the Black Bears have the distinction of representing the only state that has not sent a Division I team to the big dance. Alaska hasn’t either, but it doesn’t have any Division I schools.
This was not a particularly good year for Maine basketball, as the American East Conference team posted a 3-27 overall mark under first-year coach Bob Walsh.
Overall, the Black Bears’ basketball history has been unremarkable, although under John Giannini, who now coaches at La Salle, Maine posted two 20-win seasons and got to the America East semifinals twice. The Black Bears posted a 24-7 record in the 1999-2000 season.
2. William and Mary
One of the original 160 Division 1 institutions, the Williamsburg, Va., college has a long history that predates nearly every competitive sport played in the U.S. today. Of course, that can also be a curse as the Tribe came up just short in its attempt to earn a spot in the field of 68 this season.
As the CAA’s regular season champion this year, William and Mary (they really dislike the ampersand) put up a 20-12 record overall, but lost to Northeastern 72-61 in the league’s championship game. Under rules established by the NCAA when it took over the National Invitational Tournament a few years ago, the Tribe is guaranteed a spot in that 32-team draw thanks to the regular season title, so expect to hear from them again next week.
More importantly, this was their second 20-win season in a row, so very soon the Tribe may end a drought that goes back to 1905, or perhaps 1693.
The only member of the Big Ten, including all of its most recent additions, to never make the Big Dance, Northwestern is actually the only school in the Power 5 conferences that hasn’t gotten an invitation. Like William and Mary, Northwestern is one of the five original 160 members of Division I never to make the tournament.
The Wildcats actually had a good run under coach Bill Carmody, particularly between 2009 and 2012 when they reached the NIT four seasons straight, going to the quarterfinals in 2011 and posting their second-straight 20-win season despite finishing 7-11 in the Big Ten.
And those conference difficulties may spell the Wildcats’ biggest issue. They have not been above .500 in conference play since 1968, and probably will need to win the Big Ten (or B1G) tournament title to find their way into the field of 68 anytime soon.
Also a member of the original 160 still looking for its first invitation (along with St. Francis Brooklyn and The Citadel), the Cadets actually could have played in the NCAA tournament in 1968, but opted for the NIT instead.
It’s time for a little history lesson: the NIT was created in 1938, making it a year older than the NCAA tournament. For much of the 1940s and 1950s it was considered the crown jewel, with some teams competing in both tournaments.
Back to Army. It played in the NIT eight times, with seven of those appearances between 1961 and 1970. The 1968 team, which went 20-5 under coach Bob Knight and included Mike Krzyzewski on its roster, had the opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament, but Knight opted for a return trip to the NIT. There were several reasons, according to author John Feinstein, chief among them the domination of UCLA.